How can a good God allow evil and suffering?
As mortals, we cannot know all of God's reasons. But, God loves us enough to give us free will. We are not robots. As a result, people make mistakes. People turn away from God's perfect goodness through sin. In other words, in order to create a world with free moral creatures, God had to make a world where evil is a possibility.
Thus, our own choices sometimes produce evil over good. Also, the choices of others (including previous generations) can produce suffering. The consequences of bad choices sometimes affect not only the person who makes the wrong choice but also their family, friends, and sometimes even society.
The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be a result of God's discipline in our lives—similar to the discipline a loving parent has for his child. A loving parent stops a child from putting his hand on a hot stove. The child "suffers" at the moment by being denied access and by the temporary pain of a spanking. But the parent sees the "big picture" and disciplines the child. So, too, can God discipline us. Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this point: "...but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
While God whispers to us in our comfort, suffering is God's megaphone to a deaf world. Suffering can produce benefits greater than the suffering itself. It can strengthen people, lead people to faith, help us to appreciate the good, and be a tool to influence others. Indeed, suffering can mold us. "Suffering produces perseverance... character... hope...." (Romans 5:3-5). The actual trials of faith are worthwhile and precious as is faith itself! Our faith is strengthened as we rely on Christ to see us through troubling times.
In Acts 8:1-13 we see the story of Stephen, the first martyr recorded in the Bible. He died a horrible death by stoning. Why would God let that happen? We are told that the persecution of the church led to Christians being scattered. Wherever they went they and preached the word. This scattering resulted in the good news being preached throughout the world (Acts 2:5, 19:10; Romans 1:8, 10:18, 16:25-27; Colossians 1:6, 1:23).
This interview with Tony Snow about his cancer gives a wonderful testimony of faith through suffering. Tony passed away in the summer of 2008. The title of the interview is: "Cancer's Unexpected Blessings" and the subtitle is: "When you enter the valley of the shadow of death, things change." Here is the interview from Christianity Today.
We may not know the reason for suffering in any individual situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in "all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28). The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.
Our observation is that this issue is used as an excuse by some to try to blame God or to deny God's existence. But on reflection, most will acknowledge that we really cannot blame God for our troubles. Actually, the reality of evil, suffering, and injustice—when considered fully—is an argument for the existence of a good God. Certainly, abandoning God does not make the problem of suffering any easier. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, as quoted by Tim Keller in his book Reason for God, put it thus:
"Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don't see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live....A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort...and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (...and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful...argument [for the reality of God]."
In other words, evil is only defined by an objective standard. The atheist/evolutionist model has no such standard.
It is the knowledge that God sent His only son to suffer and die for us that our sins are forgiven and that our ultimate suffering will be relieved. As Paul Little proclaims, God is "not only aware of suffering—he feels it. No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God...Comforting are the words of Isaiah the prophet, foretelling the agony of Christ: 'He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering' (Isaiah 53:3)."
And as Tim Keller comforts the believer, "The Biblical view of things is resurrection—not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired, but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater."
Why do bad things happen to good people? The Christian answer is that there are no good people! None of us deserves the life that we have, which is a gratuitous gift from God. (See Innocent People.) Even though most people would not blame God for natural disasters that create suffering, it can be argued that even these sources of pain are all a result judgment in a general sense for man's sin. No one gets caught up in suffering due to natural events is truly innocent.
Ultimately, Christianity offers a solution. God, through his mercy and grace, offers forgiveness, reconcilation, and hope in Jesus Christ. The skeptic can use evil and suffering as a stone against Christianity, but he has no consolation in his own worldview. Christianity is the only religion or worldview that has an answer to evil and suffering. Eastern religions ignore evil; Darwinism and Communism rely on it; atheism is clueless about it; and Islam has a superficial view of it. Only Christianity provides an answer—that we are living in an abnormal world which God will restore in heaven. For more on this, see our Christian Cram Course.